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DEVIN TOWNSEND Meditates On Life & Legacy In Candid Sitdown: "When You Die, You Die. It Doesn't Matter"

Also, stop asking about Strapping Young Lad.

Devin Townsend Cropped
Photo by Paul Harries

He is one of our most prolific and polarizing artists. A true auteur in every sense in the word, one who grapples walls of sounds and smashes them up against genre-norms, yielding them fragmented, fit for a re-jumble in his own image.

Devin Townsend is indeed a mad metal scientist, moving with dexterity from the extreme industrial trappings of Strapping Young Lad, to his cult-classic and comedically macabre Ziltoid series, to more ambient and gonzo works Empath, The Puzzle and his most recent offering, Lightwork.

Townsend never mixes the same potion twice, nor does he rest on his laurels or even have time to stop and smell long planted roses.

Ahead of the release of his latest album in the Devolution series – Empath Live In America, which will be released on August 4, 2023 through InsideOut Music (pre-order Empath Live In America here) as well as a prog lovers dream tour alongside Dream Theater and Animals As Leaders this summer, Townsend sat down in classic fashion with Metal Injection for an expansive, emotional and in-depth career spanning interview.

You've had such a prolific and extremely varied career. Just honing in on different things to discuss becomes a task in itself. Does become strange for you now with something so small as compiling a setlist? Having over two dozen albums worth of material to sift through?

Yes it does, is the short answer, but I think the process of how and what I do is so foundational in my life that I don't think about it too much. I know that the music tends to follow periods of my life and I guess document it in some way. And I'm currently going through one that's really big, right? So what I'm working on now has required me to kind of isolate myself in a way, you know, like coming off of social media. And I'm just writing because I've got something to get out of my system that is going to take me a couple of years.

And so when it comes to putting together setlists, it's such a different mechanism in terms of that process, because it's so pragmatic. It's like, okay, so we're going out on tour, who do we tour with? What of those albums resonates typically with people live? What do you want to play and then what do you have time to put together? Because I think a lot of times what happens live is you make assumptions that a song will work and then you go through the effort of learning it and teaching it, and then you get out there, you're like, 'wow, that falls flat completely.' But it's really a practical matter. And I've relegated that process to next week. 

And speaking of the right tour package, you're heading out with Dream Theater, who I know you're familiar with and Animals as Leaders. It's a pretty great package for prog fans.

Yeah! I don't tour a lot, and so when I do, I really want to make it count in a way. My primary objectives are to write, now more than ever. And so when tours come up, of which they get offered all the time, I almost unanimously turn them down. But this was great for a lot of reasons, because I think that the package is three very distinct aesthetics and characteristics.

Dream Theater has got a very loyal fan base, but it's very different music than what I do. And typically the crossover from that has been slight, to be honest, because I think the reasons for the music between myself and Dream Theater are coming from different places.

But what I found by touring with them is that I really enjoyed their company. I really appreciate their musicianship and I think we're more on the same page than either of us had assumed. And I think, really, one of the fundamental ways in which that is the case is there's no drama. You know, sometimes when you're on tour you have divas or you've got people who have got no consideration for others or they're always there, if that makes sense. They're always present, but because we've both been doing it for a long time it was like zero drama.

And this time around, of course, I've got Mike Keneally with me as well and he's kind of their contemporary in a sense, where he's a little older than me … and so when the opportunity came up to play with Dream Theater again I jumped at it because they're good shows.

It's a great crew, but really it's no drama. And then knowing that Animals As Leaders is on there is fantastic as well because we've toured together a lot actually. And I really like those guys. I really like Tosin and I really like Javier, and I don't really know Matt, but I like him too. But I think that the thing more than anything else that makes that interesting is that they're very different from the other two. So if you are a progressive, heavy music fan, it's a show that gives you three very different things to participate in. 

Trying to define you as an artist is difficult because you've been so varied over the decades. If you look at what you've been doing in recent years it's in such stark contrast to the Strapping Young Lad days or even different to the Devin Townsend Project. And genre is so hard to define at the best of times. 

How do you assess that as an artist at this stage of your career? You've spoken about recently, even with an album like Empath, that it's kind of invigorating not to be tied down to genre convention or being able to get extremely exploratory and not worrying about putting yourself in a box.

Well, sometimes I feel like doing that and other times I feel like writing pop songs. It's less about the content. And again, it's much more about the process. And that process, the easiest way to describe it is your job is as an artist, or at least I feel on some level my job as an artist is to document the experiences that I have had and how that affects me emotionally through the work. And there's varying degrees of how that strikes me in terms of importance even.

Sometimes I think it's exceptionally important for me to document these things and other times I'm just kind of noodling. And I guess I would describe myself artistically as trading in being as authentic as I'm able to be at any given time. And so whatever I do, whether or not it's something like The Puzzle or something like Lightwork or something like Strapping or The Hummer or whatever, it's like they're all as accurate as I can be, for better or for worse, with where I am at that particular time.

Do you see certain phases of your career as being almost life cycles? Like if you consider the Devin Townsend Project era from say, 2009 to 2016, Strapping of course and now what you've been doing from Empath to Lightwork, everything in between and the Ziltoid era. Do you consider it a cycle where you'll bring in different session players in the studio and on the road until you've reached a point where you feel like you've completed or finished the story of that particular arc?

Yes, the answer is yes. But also it's important to point out that there's no real intellectualization of that. I follow the path of creative compulsion to the best of my ability. And by that I mean I write all the time, as I suppose any musician would do. Yet during that process of writing, I don't judge it a whole lot or edit it, maybe is a better word.

And by doing that I'll sort of vomit out a whole bunch of things at any particular time. And the process usually occurs in that one of those things gets stuck. Like it starts to ferment in a sense. And then of all those ideas, say you've got 15 ideas that you're working on, there's one that seems more in line with where you think you are going then others. And the way that I know that it's more in line is because it's the only one that really interests me.

And so I follow my interests as, I guess, a creative compulsion. And then those interests just kind of funnel their way naturally to where I'm at. And at the end of it, I'm able to look back at it and say, okay, that's where you were. You were afraid of this or you were suffering from this or you were suffering by your own hand from this or death or kids or relationships or whatever. And I guess the thing ultimately with that process is that one thing informs the next based on the workload that goes into it.

So if I do something like Empath where it was really what Empath was, the next thing is not going to be like that because I just did that, you know what I mean? And then I didn't expect Puzzle or Lightwork to happen. I mean, none of us expected the Spanish Inquisition. But I think the thing with those two is when I started writing during the pandemic, the type of music that The Puzzle was was the only thing that interested me. Like that was it. And when I came out, everybody was like 'dude, what the fuck is this?' And I'm like I don't know what to tell you man. It's exactly what I felt like doing.

But because one thing informs the next, as soon as I finish The Puzzle, the amount of effort that went into that was just so extreme that my reaction to these things are always typically going to be the opposite. So writing something more linear was less of a creative choice and more of a pressure release to clear the way for what I'm doing now, which is what I wanted to do prior to the pandemic. 

It must be a different kind of feeling or catharsis in creating an album like The Puzzle or Lightwork versus, I don't know, even if you look back to Infinity or Alien.

I don't know, man. I think the process is the same. I think that the catalysts and the things that provide fuel for the process change, but the process is exactly the same, in my opinion, as it was for Infinity and Alien. It's exactly the same. There's no distinction that I can make. The only thing I can think of is that there's certain elements of it that I'm better at. There's certain processes within my workflow that I'm much more efficient at, you know, and one of those is that I'm able to compartmentalize the emotional components in a much more efficient way.

Prior I think I probably subconsciously enjoyed the drama. You know, it's like there's something romantic about it when you're a kid of being so completely immersed in it that it's your art, it's your blah, blah, blah, blah. But then by having kids and by losing loved ones and things like where the reality of life that perhaps you didn't have to contend with when you were younger.

I was fortunate in that sense, maybe, all of a sudden re-calibrate your connection to music and it really made me feel gratitude for being able to make music, and that became a much more powerful catalyst later in life. I think the reason it became more powerful for me is because I was less precious about the ideas. It was more like here's where I'm at unequivocally.

Now, the downside of that is I made a fair amount of content over the past 20 years that the impetus for it was business. Like you have to make a record because we're touring so much you have to put out a product, you have to do this. And although I wasn't dissatisfied fundamentally with any of the things because they were all based on that same process, I do feel that in hindsight I would have preferred to spend my time on things.

I haven't had the opportunity to spend time on an album since, god, I don't even remember, man. Maybe Alien and Synchestra, you know? And so now what I've been really working towards is how can I keep the bills paid so I don't have to be public? I don't have to tour, I don't have to do some stupid Instagram shit. Like, I just really just want to write because I've got all this material that's been building that I haven't had a chance to process since the kids and the pandemic. I mean, all the stuff, there's all this information that I was just on in battle mode. My live streams, fucking twitch streams like just blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

And although I think that was a great thing for me to do intellectually because I learned so much and we were able to make money for some charities with the live stream. We made 300 grand or something for hospitals for those live streams. But by doing that, man, I just I didn't have the opportunity to just be like, Where the fuck are you? Like, where are you, man? So a lot of what I've been strategizing for the past six months is like, Well, how do I take the bull by the horns and do that again? How do I find ways to reconnect so the next thing that I do is not based on you having to make a record, you know what I mean? 

Given that you have such a glut of content coming and you're constantly firing off innovations and different ideas, do you often have time to reflect? I'm a big nerd for album anniversaries, and I guess we get really sucked into that as metal media as well. We're always looking back and reminiscing and nostalgia is an incredible tool. Do you ever find yourself, particularly in these last recent years, looking back at the early eras of your career?

I haven't had a chance, brother. Like, that's the problem. That's the fundamental problem. I had to move like three times over the past couple of years, as well as these endless tours and making Lightwork, which was incredibly difficult for me because I was working with a co-producer for the first time and it wasn't easy, right? All these things. And The Puzzle was a huge project and all the live streams and everything, building this studio. It's been so much. People passing away and I'm sure it's the same with you where you've got people in your life that are just going bananas, right? And you have to be there.

You know, a friend of mine got very ill and you've got to be there for your friend. So it's been such a red alert for so long that I'm not saying that it's like I deserve a break because everybody deserves a break. But what I am saying is that to the best of my ability, I'm going to try and strategize the next couple of years of my life so that I can make time to reflect. Because if I don't do that, man, I'm just never going to have an opportunity and the music is going to become repetitive unless you're able to reflect.

And I think that's been the worry for me is it's okay to constantly grind and grind and grind. But until you have the chance to sit back and say, okay, where am I? Who am I at this point? Like, physically I've changed and all these things have happened. And until such time that you can make peace with that on some level you're going to be reflecting musically in a way that is diluting itself in some way.

It's funny that you said that and you kind of talked about the idea of being at different points in the past few years where you had to make albums because of the cycle of the music business where it's tour, record, tour record. I came across an interview you did a few years back where you were asked a fan question along the lines of "favorite or least favorite Strapping Young Lad records?"

And you mentioned the self-titled album in as much as you didn't put as much into it as you could have or would have wanted because you were doubling down with Accelerated Evolution at the same time. Looking at the timeline here, I think Strapping Young Lad self-titled came out in February '03 and Accelerated came out in March '03. Maybe you were stretching yourself too thin?

It's crazy. And I've been doing that for 20 odd years. Yeah, it's like Ocean Machine and City and Synchestra and Alien, Accelerated Evolution and the self-titled, Punky Bruster and Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing, The Puzzle and Snuggle, all four of the Devin Townsend Project things, three shows at the Royal Albert Hall. You know, we did the orchestras, which is Deconstruction and Ghost simultaneously. It's been so much for so long. And it's not to say that and I'm not trying to say as a martyr, oh I've been working so hard or whatever because I chose to do it, but one of the things that I feel is in line for me to process is my reasons for that productivity.

And if my reasons for doing that were rooted in the same mechanism that at one time had drawn me towards like smoking a ton of dope or drinking a bunch of booze, then it's just migrated. And if that's the case, then there's something in there that needs to be addressed. And so for me, I think that slowing down and not that I'm slowing down, but being able to sort of take more time to be introspective when it comes to the next release will allow me to understand that perhaps a significant amount of my self-worth has been invested in the work. And in absence of that, perhaps I didn't realize that maybe my self-esteem was so low that I thought unless I'm constantly producing, unless I'm constantly out there, unless I'm constantly on social media, then what's what's my value? Which is absurd when you think about it.

But I think these things sneak up on you subconsciously. I think it's really a case of that. However, when you recognize that tendency to continue doing it is crazy, right? So what I've been doing now is really setting myself up and trying to find ways to keep myself employed while still carving out time to write like I used to in a way. I haven't had the chance to do that since maybe even Terria.

You know it's been a long time since I've been able to just sit with the ideas and let them ferment as opposed to like, Yeah, that'll do. Let's finish it, you know? There's a benefit from that, though, because all the technical things, I've learned so fucking much, man. I've learned how to do it. So now it's like, okay, so how do we put these pieces together?

You know, you mentioned value, and I feel with the idea of an artist as prolific as yourself that it almost comes as the double edged sword of you have something as resonant and as loved as Strapping Young Lad's City or Alien or the Ziltoid series that maybe if you do something like Empath that's a little bit different you have fans who are saying, 'We love this, we love you, but when's the next Strapping? Will there be more Strapping? When's the next Ziltoid?'

On one hand there has to be a little bit of an internal frustration because you put so much of yourself into this. But on the other hand, you've created things that are, and it sounds cliche to say timeless, but they hold a resonance to fans and are so beloved all these years later. How do you balance that?

I got to say, I'm so grateful for people loving any of it. It doesn't matter to me what you love if you love it. It's like none of those records I did, at least as far as I'm aware, disingenuously … So if people love it, it's amazing. However, I get bored of repeating myself, so I just don't want to talk about it anymore. You know what I mean? I think it's one of the reasons why I'm not on social media at this point as well is I think it becomes a tendency with artists to vent.

You know, if you get sick, have gone through some drama it's just like this is like my loudspeaker to the world where I'm just going to bitch about this or you get a bad review or somebody comes on social media and says something shitty and then it baits you into going down that avenue. And honestly dude, I just find it really fucking boring. It could be toxic. I tended to not participate in those sorts of things even when I was on social media.

But then all of a sudden I realized I'm like, Man, I got a choice. And I think because as artists, some of us, I know I to some degree, have been trained to think that in absence of perpetual content you're just not going to be able to support your family. So you've got to be on social media. You've got to be ‘smash that like button and hit subscribe and don't forget to ring the bell!’ and all that shit.

So what I'm experimenting with right now is like, okay, well, what if you don't have to do that? Maybe you do. Maybe I'll find that in a couple of months, I'll be like, Oh man, everybody forgot that this exists and now I gotta get back out there and be like, Arhhhhhh! But I've also been setting up this green screen thing because I've got so many ideas for what I want to do content wise that require me to just think about things for a moment. So when it comes to people having an emotional investment in the past material, circling around to that again, I'm super grateful, but I don't want to explain it anymore. That's it.

It's like the amount of times that I've had to sort of in a very diplomatic way, say, Well, the reason why Strapping won't be coming back is because of the process that I've been involved with for so many years is rooted in trying to articulate periods of my life. And as you grow, the impetus for writing changes. And so it's absurd to think that you're going to be a 23-year-old mindset with the same authenticity at 51. It's absurd. So I'll say that over and over, and the people are like, 'Fuck you! Do more Strapping!' I'm like, I guess I don't want to talk about it, so I just don't want to talk about it anymore.

So that's where I'm at. But it's not that I resent it at all. Even as an employer, man, I hate repeating myself. I hate it. As a father or whatever, it's like if I say, Hey, man, this is where I'm at and it happens again. Okay dude, just so you know, this is where I'm at and it happens again. So if you dislike that, it's not the person's fault in this scenario. It's not like the audience that cares about my work is at fault. That's insane.

I'm so grateful that they like the work. But in my mind, the reason why some of those older records resonated as much as they did with people is because I had the time to process. I didn't have anything going on. I didn't have kids, I wasn't married, you know, whatever it was. So in order for me to reconnect with that, I think it's in the benefit of the audience as well as myself to just be like, okay, we're not going to talk about this anymore. I've said it enough. So I'll see you in a while and I want to write something fucking awesome. 

You know, digging into the past as I like to do, I did discover that this is the 30th anniversary of Sex & Religion. Obviously the album marked a pretty pivotal moment in your life and career and really set the stage for a lot of things to come with your work with Steve Vai. Getting to reflect for a moment if you would, thinking back with the lens of 30 years on that period of your life and that record and time with Steve. It must be quite a trip.

Yes and no. I mean, it depends on how much value you adhere to these things, right? Like for me, that was a moment, but the most valuable part of that is I made a friend. You know, Steve and I went through a lot of ugly things together. And there are times where one would be forgiven for thinking that, no, you guys are not going to be friends when you're older, but we're friends. He's a really lovely dude, man. And he's a good friend of mine and we think similarly in some ways. And so when we talk to each other now, it's not about music necessarily. It's like what are you doing? How's your life? How's your kids? And I like that because life is so short.

I was talking to an artist friend of mine the other day, and he implied to me that the foundation of his reason for making art was so that it would outlive him, so that on some level his work would be immortalized in a way. And I don't feel that way. Like, I don't think that that matters because it's like when you die, you die. It doesn't matter. So to have that as your reason seems like it would draw you back to the past, like this is a super important record. This is an important thing, but maybe it isn't. Maybe it's just the thing, you know? And If I can consider the work to just be that, then it makes it easy to create because the foundation of the creation of that point is explorative rather than some sort of inherent sense of importance to it. But I mean, I love Steve. He's a good friend of mine.

And the record, ahhh, I don't listen to that record. I’ve got no interest in that record. And it's not because it's a bad record just because it was a fucking fucked up period. It's like every now and then you'll hear a record. I know a lady that every time she hears Fall Out Boy it makes her barf because she heard it so much when she was pregnant, you know what I mean? And it's not because of Fall Out Boy. Well, maybe it is, but it's because it reminds them of a time in their life that was difficult, right? Yeah, Sex & Religion was super difficult, man. And Steve is my friend and if it's important to him then yeah, sure, we'll talk about it. But I mean. You know? Yeah.

I totally get where you're coming from. You can have those kinds of resonant feelings with music where it really transports us, good or bad.

Totally. There's no reason in the world why I should like the song “Hysteria” as much as I do, but it reminded me of my first girlfriend, right?

Devin Townsend will hit the road with Dream Theater and Animals As Leaders starting this month. Get your tickets here.

6/16 Cedar Park, TX @ H-E-B Center At Cedar Park
6/17 Dallas, TX @ Texas Trust CU @ Grand Prairie
6/18 Sugar Land, TX @ Smart Financial Centre
6/21 Clearwater, FL @ Ruth Eckerd Hall
6/22 Hollywood, FL @ Hard Rock Live Arena
6/23 Orlando, FL @ Hard Rock
6/25 Atlanta, GA @ Fox Theater
6/27 Washington, PA @ Wild Things Park
6/28 New York, NY @ Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden
6/30 Bridgeport, CT @ Hartford Healthcare Amphitheater
7/1 Philadelphia, PA @ The Met
7/2 Boston, MA @ Leader Bank Pavilion
7/4 Laval, QC @ Place Bell
7/5 Hamilton, ON @ FirstOntario Centre
7/7 Gary, IN @ Hard Rock Casino
7/8 Cleveland, OH @ Jacobs Pavilion
7/9 Newport, KY @ MegaCorp Pavilion
7/11 Detroit, MI @ Masonic
7/12 OshKosh, WI @ OshKosh Arena
7/13 Cedar Rapids, IA @ Alliant Energy Power House
7/15 Denver, CO @ Mission Theater
7/17 Spokane, WA @ First Interstate Center
7/18 Calgary, AB @ Grey Eagle
7/19 Edmonton, AB @ Northern Alberta Jubilee
7/21 Vancouver, BC @ Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre
7/22 Redmond, WA @ Marymoor Live
7/24 San Jose, CA @ San Jose Civic
7/25 Inglewood, CA @ YouTube Theater
7/26 Phoenix, AZ @ Arizona Financial Theatre

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